Lucknow: The raging COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed the economic condition of families across Uttar Pradesh. Those families that suffered death of a member narrate the prohibitive expenses that they had to bear in order to try and locate basic medical help - like oxygen, medicines, hospital care, etc.
Even death rites have become so expensive that many poor families have simply floated the bodies of their dear ones in the Ganga or buried them in the sand banks. Among families that had COVID-19 infections but recovered, the tale is similarly harrowing, though they are thankful that nobody died. But such infections in families have meant a body blow to their budgets, aggravated by the fact that normal earnings are practically impossible now.
It has been more than 10 days since Ravindra Kumar (27) lost his father due to COVID-19 like symptoms but he is still in deep shock. He tries to console his mother but her pain is too much to handle. Not a single day goes by that his mother has not fainted, remembering her husband Shosingh who was 55 years old.
The family spent at least Rs 20,000 on medicine, hospitals and testing in a single day; visited six hospitals including Meerut Medical College and yet they could not save his life. Despite his vulnerable condition, the hospital told the family that he could not be admitted as there was no oxygen available. He passed away soon after. The family’s woes did not end here. They had to shell out a huge amount on his cremation and other last rites.
It was a harrowing incident for the family as they witnessed the family's head dying a slow death, unattended in the vehicle.
"My father was healthy but suddenly on May 1, he had complained of mild symptoms but it seems that his lungs were severely infected. We consulted a private doctor and found that his oxygen level was 75. The doctor suggested arranging oxygen cylinders for him. I promised my ailing father to come back soon and left home in search of an oxygen cylinder along with my friends, but who knew that it was a final goodbye and we would fail to arrange cylinder,” he narrated the series of events leading up to his father’s death.
“I had paid Rs 2,500 for a pulse oximeter and Rs 1,500 for a nebuliser from a place outside LLRM Medical College - Meerut. We were running from one hospital to another hospital, pleading to the doctors to admit my father and arrange oxygen but they even refused to check him properly, leaving him to die in the vehicle,” he told NewsClick, accusing hospitals of negligence.
Also read: COVID-19 in Rural UP: Massive Crisis Unfolding?
"My father was not alone who died in the car, there were many others who have succumbed to COVID-19 due to shortage of oxygen in ambulances, vehicles, or on the road. Both the Center and state government have failed us all," he went to add.
Notably, the Allahabad High Court on April 13 had pulled up the Yogi Adityanath-led Uttar Pradesh government for hiding key facts about COVID-19 treatment facilities and the number of deaths, and failing to comply with earlier orders on furnishing hospitals with life-saving equipment and drugs.
‘I WON'T SEE MY HUSBAND AGAIN’
Annu (23), who lost her husband and the sole breadwinner of their family to COVID-19, is still distraught. She has been in a semi-conscious state ever since his death, her family members said. She has only one question to anyone who visits her at her home in Parvez Vihar, a small dalit hamlet in Meerut, “Mere bachhon ko unka baap la kar kaun dega (Who will return their father to my children)?”
Sunny with his wife and child
"My brother was down with fever for three days and on April 1 when we took him to Max Hospital, he tested positive for COVID-19. Meanwhile, his oxygen level continued to drop sharply. We arranged 4-5 oxygen cylinders in the midnight and paid around Rs 1.5 lakh including hospital expenses but he died the next day," said his younger brother Hunny, who is a bike mechanic by profession and had borrowed money for the treatment of his brother.
Accusing the Max Hospital in Meerut for arbitrary charges for treatment, the deceased’s brother said that that the hospital charged Rs 35,000 per day for bed, oxygen and medicine. “Being a dalit is a crime in Uttar Pradesh and we are not even worth living it seems. We took my brother first to the government hospital since we did not have money for treatment but they refused to admit my brother due to oxygen and bed shortage. Somehow we borrowed money from relatives and admitted him at Max but all wast in vain as we could not bring him back,” Hunny told NewsClick, breaking down in tears.
Even before the news could sink in, Sunny’s brother had more trouble in store for him. With no male members left in his family after his brother’s death, Hunny requested the villagers to help him to take the body for cremation. To his utter shock and disbelief, no one came forward to help as they were fearful of contracting the deadly virus. “That was not all. When we reached the crematorium, they (the authorities) refused the cremate the body saying that dalits can perform the last rites at their own ground, not here,” Hunny claimed.
HIGH COST OF CREMATIONS FORCE MANY TO BURY DEAD
With an unprecedented number of cremations taking place in rural areas in UP during the current wave of COVID-19, the high cost of cremation has reportedly forced many villagers to bury their dead or dump the bodies in the Ganga, Yamuna and Rapti rivers. Due to shortage of woods and no help from district administration, family members are not able to perform last rituals, as per reports.
Insert photo with caption: Earthen pots hanging on tree after performing last rituals
According to residents of rural areas, each funeral pyre requires about 4-4 tonnes of woods but due to the effect of the pandemic, several families have been unable to facilitate a proper cremation of their dead kin.
With 27 deaths reported in 20 days due to COVID-19 like symptoms in Sanjarpur village of Azamgarh district — a Muslim majority village which also comprises 20% dalit population, the residents are living in fear and anxiety. According to the villagers, most of the dalit families are from poor background and have been forced to bury their dead in the local graveyard or on the banks of the river Tamsa, a tributary of the Ganga.
Also read: We are Handling Over 100 Bodies Daily on Varanasi’s Ghats, Say Crematorium Staff
“Mahendra Gaur, Bhure Yadav, his brother’s wife and their daughter died due to COVID-19 within a span of 24 hours. They were buried in the sand on the bank of Kunwar river due to exorbitant rates at cremation grounds. Even vehicles have been demanding arbitration amount from deceased’s families. People have been left with no option but to bury the bodies,” Masishuddin Sanjari, zonal coordination of Rihai Manch, Azamgarh, told NewsClick, adding that despite many people succumbing to deadly virus, not a single health official has visited the village so far.
Rajan Gaur (22) who lost his father Mahendra Gaur (54), said, “Both my aunt and sister died in less than 24 hours due to COVID-19 complications like fever, cold and breathing problems. We are daily wage labourers and due to the pandemic we are penniless. What will we do if not bury the bodies. From where will we get money for the expensive rituals?”
“Earlier one could get wood for funeral at Rs 500-600 per quintal, but since the demand has increased, the same wood is now being sold at Rs 2,500-2,899 per quintal. At least 3-4 quintals are required for each body. Besides, a hefty amount is also charged by the priest. How can poor people like us invest Rs 5,000 to 10,000 for last rites,” he asked.
He said that his ailing mother has been asking to see her husband, but he does not have the courage to answer he any more.
When asked about the health infrastructure in Sanjarpur area, the villagers accused district authorities of carelessness as they have failed to arrange oxygen. They alleged that there is a Community Health Centre (CHC) in the village but no doctor is available, only a pharmacist and sweeper look after the premises.
Meanwhile, according to data collected from Azamgarh district headquarters, 51 new cases and five dead have been reported due to COVID-19 on May 17. There are 1,085 active cases.
A health activist told NewsClick that there are 22 blocks, eight tehsils and 1,818 gram panchayats in Azamgarh district. He alleged that the district administration is hiding the actual deaths, as RT-PCR tests are not accessible in rural areas.
“Only rapid antigen test team is visiting in a few villages but villagers boycott the drive because of misconceptions. People are ignoring tests as they fear villagers will not allow them to stay at home if they come to know they are COVID-19 positive and there is no isolation facilities where they can be quarantined,” said Rajdev Chaturvedi, the health activist based in Azamgarh, claiming that 8-10 people are dying on an average due to COVID-19 in the district.
Similarly, 11 people died in seven days (May 7 to May 11) in Sanha village of Gorakhpur’s Sadar tehsil due to COVID-19 like symptoms, as per reports. Most of the people had fever, cough and cold. “The health official team visited one day and did COVID-19 inspection of only 12 people out of 4,000 people because they did not have enough kits and haven’t returned,” claimed a villager. The villagers have accused the Health Department and district administration for taking their issues lightly.
ECONOMIC IMPACT OF COVID-19 IN RURAL AREAS
The economic impact of COVID-19 has left many families under financial distress in rural areas. If the lockdown is extended for another two-three weeks several will be forced to go hungry, as per local reports. Many migrant workers working in the big cities have returned to their villages.
“If we survived COVID-19 somehow, this economic crisis will take our lives. We have never imagined even in our wildest dream that we would face such circumstances. Now most of the families in rural areas are dependent on Public Distribution System (PDS). Kya amir kya ghareeb, sabko ration ka intezar rahta hai (Be it poor or rich, everyone is waiting for ration). This is how pandemic has devastated us economically,” Mayur Pandey, a private school teacher from Basti district, said.
Commenting over the economic crisis in rural and urban pockets, Thanku, a health economic expert from Maharashtra who is working in rural areas of Bundelkhand region - one of the backward division in Uttar Pradesh, said, “In every household people are down with fever or having mild symptoms of COVID-19. Migrant workers who returned from metro cities are growing vegetables on land they have taken on leases. People are dependent on PDS ration as they are running short of money. But people are not getting nutritious ration even as a huge chunk of people are suffering from weakness due to fever and cold. There are multiple NGOs who are trying to provide nutritious food but it is not possible to provide at every doorstep as they have limited resources.”
Refuting the Chief Minister’s claim that “all is okay” in Uttar Pradesh, the activist said, “If all is okay according to the chief minister then why are people dying due to fever and cold? Why are people fearing to get tested? I had developed symptoms of COVID-19 and after a huge struggle, could get tested but did not receive reports even after six days. Later, I mentioned the concerned authorities on Twitter, only then the official handed me my reports,” she said.
Also read: COVID-19: UP's Health System Paralysed After Test Results Take 4-5 Days